Shirley Smith

“Shirley Smith was one of New Zealand’s truly great women of the law. Great because she shattered glass ceilings, took on the establishment and won, excelled as both an academic and a practitioner, and simply because she just did it – she qualified in and practised law at a time when few other women did and the effect of this on younger women is something that should never be undervalued.”

shirley smith photo

Shirley Smith’s (1916-2007) interest in becoming a lawyer was first sparked by the work of her father, Sir David Smith, a barrister and, later, a judge.  Sir David was counsel for Maori claimants before the royal commission that sat under the chairmanship of Sir William Sim in 1927 to inquire into the confiscation of Maori land. Partly as a result of Smith’s submissions the commission found that the wars in Taranaki and Waikato were unjustified. Sir David would talk to his daughter over the dinner table about his legal cases and judgments.

However, as Shirley recorded in a 1993 article entitled “My Life in the Law”, her father initially did not approve of her following in his footsteps.  “Oh no,” he told her, “it is no job for a lady, you get involved in far too sordid things.”  Shirley didn’t give the law another thought until years later – after she had taken a Classics degree at Oxford, spent time teaching Classics in New Zealand universities and married – when she attended a lecture on the Status of Women Commission in New York given by a woman lawyer who was a member of that Commission.  In “My Life in the Law”, Shirley reflected:

“It was not what she said that won me to the law – I hardly took in a word – it was the appearance on the platform of this young woman, trim in a black suit. A woman lawyer. If she can do it, I said to myself, so can I.”

Shirley returned to New Zealand in 1951 and the following year enrolled in the Law Faculty of Victoria University of Wellington, aged 35.  She was one of approximately five women students at the law school.  The law school was completely male-dominated. One lecturer even refused to let women students attend his lectures.  Shirley was determined to make her presence as a woman felt.  While that lecturer died before Shirley could take on his ban, she did successfully challenge the Law Faculty Club’s exclusion of women from its annual dinner.  At around the same time, she also challenged the Wellington District Law Society and the New Zealand Law Society on their policies of excluding women lawyers from their dinners.

In 1957 she graduated and became the 41st woman to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand.  After a brief period as a law clerk at a firm in Wellington, she accepted a position as lecturer at Victoria’s Law Faculty, becoming the first woman to be a full member of a law faculty at a New Zealand university.  She taught Roman Law and Constitutional Law and was the first editor of the Victoria University of Wellington Law Review.

After teaching for two years, Shirley decided to leave the university to take up the practice of law.  Like many other women lawyers to follow, she entered the profession as a sole practitioner.  She later said that it had not occurred to her to apply to any law firms – as a woman over 40 with a child, she had assumed that firms would have no interest in taking her on.  As a sole practitioner, she was required to be a generalist in terms of her practice.  Throughout the 1960s, Shirley had cases ranging from contract and tort to immigration, conveyancing, paternity suits and divorce.

As Dame Sian Elias noted in her 2009 Shirley Smith Address, the work Shirley undertook was “small beer by the standards of the successful in the profession”, and much of it was badly paid or pro bono.  However, Shirley had no complaints, and was not interested in any yardstick of success but her own.    And, in time, she developed a formidable reputation in the fields of criminal law and family law.

Shirley’s commitment to social justice undergirded her legal career.  She saw it as her role to represent anyone in need of legal assistance, and acted for many marginalised people, whether they could pay or not.  She undertook pro bono work for organisations such as the Society for Research on Women and the Wellington Cook Islands Society, and was instrumental in the establishment of the Human Rights Organisation and the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties.

Shirley became somewhat notorious as ‘counsel for the gangs’: she acted for multiple members of the Wellington chapter of Black Power and, later, the Porirua chapter of the Mongrel Mob.  Shirley’s dedication to her clients and strong sense of social justice is illustrated in her response to a question about her role in defending gang members in criminal cases:

“I am not to be congratulated for what I do.  I am just grateful that I have discovered these marvelous people.  If other people would treat them on the same sort of basis, I think they would find that they were very much rewarded.  The trouble is, you see, they expect to be rejected.  They expect contempt and hostility and when they get it they fire up immediately …  If people could only learn to give everybody the benefit of the doubt to start with, basically, no matter what they look like, there is a human being in there.”

Shirley set an inspiring example for other lawyers.  The lawyer and writer Jeremy Pope, a former student of Shirley’s, recalled that:

“… she really role modeled for the less experienced practitioner how someone with a sense of calling to the law conducts him or herself.  Not as seeing it as a path to riches, but rather seeing it as a solemn duty to leave no person unrepresented, no matter the lack of means to pay.  Throughout she showed a passion for justice which many others had had worn out of them by the grind of overwork.  She was unfailingly generous and unfailingly kind … No-one who was in the courts where she appeared – be they counsel, court clerk, defendant or judge – will ever forget her.”

Margaret Wilson, one of the women lawyers who followed in Shirley’s footsteps, and the then Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, reflected in the inaugural Shirley Smith Address that:

“It is hard to describe the importance of women such as Shirley Smith not only to women entering the legal profession but to the development of our legal system.  She was one of those warrior lawyers who struggle to ensure everyone got a fair hearing when pursuing or defending their legal rights.”

Shirley gave up the practice of law in the early 1990s and was voted an honorary life member of the Wellington District Law Society in 1995.  She concluded 1993’s “My Life in the Law” by saying:

“I have given up my solicitor’s certificate because I have so many other things that I must do and put in order before I die which have been neglected during my long preoccupation with the law.  I miss my clients.  I miss the practice of law, but perhaps it is time I gave up, because I doubt if I could accommodate myself to the [technological] changes.  …  My day is past, but it was a good day.”

Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are taken from the eulogy presented at Shirley’s funeral by District Court Judge Ema Aitken.